In this post for the blog, David Prior explores recent rhetoric about the promise of a “Third Reconstruction” and the lineage of historical analogies to the first.
In the past few years, there has been a flurry of commentary on the prospect of a “Third Reconstruction” in the United States. Understood as a mass movement, a legislative-administrative agenda, or a combination of the two, the Third Reconstruction promises to confront racism, especially in policing, the criminal justice system, election law, and the economy. This post provides some historical context for the concept and puts a question to H-CivWar’s readers. What do we make of this analogizing across historical moments, both as a form of public engagement and on narrower, scholarly terms?
The concept is now widely familiar. Just this week, congressman Mondaire Jones (D-NY) urged a Third Reconstruction in the Washington Post, while the past few years have seen similar calls in The Hill, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and academic blogs. William J. Barber II’s theologically-infused memoir of coming to lead grassroots civil rights efforts in North Carolina, The Third Reconstruction (2016), is an origin point for the current upsurge of discussion. But the concept dates back to at least the late 1960s, when historian and public intellectual C. Vann Woodward, who had earlier written of the Civil Rights Movement as part of a “New” and “Second Reconstruction,” gestured to the possibility of a Third to confront economic disparities across the nation. One can find, as well, an even longer civil rights tradition of urging “New Reconstructions.” In 1919, for example, Howard University professor Kelly Miller published The Negro in the New Reconstruction, which looked to a national moral regeneration in the wake of World War One. Beyond that, there is an even older tradition of using “reconstruction” as a metaphor for reform, historical change, and much else. There is much to say about these various points, as well as the scholarship that has developed Woodward’s concept of a Second Reconstruction.
The circulation of the concept of a Third Reconstruction should raise eyebrows among those interested in gauging how successful historians’ public engagement has been. In a 2017 discussion forum published in the Journal of the Civil War Era, Eric Foner noted that, earlier in his career, scholars had to devote energy to disabusing audiences of Dunning-school misconceptions about America’s Reconstruction. Now, in contrast, “the more common problem seems to be lack of knowledge. People bring a kind of blank slate to these discussions. They have a sense that Reconstruction was important but have little idea what happened or why.” In this context it is remarkable how quickly the concept of the Third Reconstruction has moved to the fore. It seems we have almost teleported into a new cultural moment marked by broad familiarity with the First Reconstruction, in which the political Left is confident that references to it can rally efforts for substantive change.
Of course, it may be that both points are still true, and that it is precisely the inchoate nature of the First Reconstruction in the political imagination that allows for easy analogizing. Such fuzziness could be evident, for example, in how the concept of the “Third Reconstruction” has risen to prominence alongside other, perhaps conflicting, historical metaphors that situate the present as part of the “New Jim Crow” and a “Second Nadir.” (On these overlapping analogies, see Robert Greene’s article in Dissent in 2018.) To the extent that the idea of multiple Reconstructions makes sense and helps clarify thinking, it is in pointing to the need for federal action and legislation to protect African American rights from repressive local and state political campaigns and policies. It is no surprise that many of the individuals articulating the idea of a Third Reconstruction do so in defense of the proposed H.R./S.R. 1 “For the People” Bill, which is very much a federal countermeasure to state-level attempts to restrict minority access to voting.
But beyond that point, the analogy starts to get confusing, in part because there is a tension between using the analogy to mobilize and working through the complexities of three historical moments. Even while coining the concept of the Second Reconstruction in the 1950s, Woodward seemed uneasy with how it could mix analysis with politically-infused myth-making, and cautioned his African American peers in the Civil Rights Movement against seeing the First Reconstruction as a golden age. Writing in 1966, he noted of the comparisons between the Civil Rights Movement and the original Reconstruction: “It would be a simple exercise to elaborate the analogies and spin out the parallels, but the differences are more impressive than the similarities.” Whatever modern scholars think of Woodward’s specific concerns, the general problems with fine-grained comparisons seems just as pertinent to the present idea of a Third Reconstruction. There are of course ways in which Donald Trump was like Andrew Johnson (racist and temperamental), and the Justice Department is now playing a pivotal role in investigating white supremacist paramilitaries and vigilantes, as it did at points during Reconstructions 1 & 2. But the differences among these and other specific points of comparison are sufficient to muddy waters of the core analogy itself. Is the point that the First Reconstruction was a bold experiment we should take inspiration from? Or that it was too conservative and half-hearted (on the part of northern Republicans) to succeed? Is the lesson of the First Reconstruction that the nation-state can break the back of white supremacist organizations? Or that it has consistently failed to stop such mobilizing in the first place? Are we searching for a story of democratic efficacy or of the omnipresent threat of a white supremacist electoral majority?
Those questions raised, I can’t help but be struck by how the concept of the Third Reconstruction has taken hold. In general, I see the word “reconstruction” as so overburdened with meanings, even before the recent historical analogizing, that it tends towards confusion. As recently as 2015, one leading scholar, Steven Hahn, noted his uncertainty about what the term refers to in the context of American history. Notwithstanding, it appears that the term has been reborn in public discourse. One wonders if there isn’t, ironically, a broader consensus on the political Left about the nature and meaning of America’s Reconstruction than there is in recent scholarship.
 See, for example, Manisha Sinha, “The Case for a Third Reconstruction,” New York Review of Books, February 3, 2021 (https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2021/02/03/the-case-for-a-third-reconstruction/); Adam Serwer, “The New Reconstruction” Atlantic Monthly, October 2020 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/10/the-next-reconstruction/615475/); Robert Greene, “The Urgency of a Third Reconstruction,” Dissent, July 9, 2018 (https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-urgency-of-a-third-reconstruction); Wilfred Codrington III, “The United States Needs a Third Reconstruction,” The Atlantic, July 2020 (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/united-states-needs-third-reconstruction/614293/); Rebecca E. Zietlow, “It’s Time for a Third Reconstruction,” The Hill, June 17, 2020 (https://thehill.com/opinion/civil-rights/503182-its-time-for-a-third-reconstruction); Halifu Osumare, “America’s 3rd Reconstruction – Black Lives Matter,” Halifu Osumare: Black Popular Culture Scholar, Dance Educator, Choreographer, July 19, 2017 (https://www.hosumare.com/post-title4fdb2c41).
 See William J. Barber II, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).
 See C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History, 3rd ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 177-78, 185, 186; and Hanes Walton, Jr., et al., “Beyond the Second Reconstruction: C. Vann Woodward’s Concept of the Third Reconstruction in the South,” The American Review of Politics 32 (Summer 2011): 105-130. Open access at: https://journals.shareok.org/arp/about.
 Kelly Miller, The Negro in the New Reconstruction, (Howard University Press, 1919); available at https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100770047. For this time period, see the excellent article, Brook Thomas, “Reconstruction and World War I: The Birth of What Sort of Nation(s)?” American Literary History 30, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 559-583.
 “Reconstruction in Public History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial: A Roundtable Discussion,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 96-122; open access at: https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/reconstruction-in-public-history-and-memory-sesquicentennial-roundtable/.
 C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), 107.
 Woodward, The Burden of Southern History, 3rd ed., 168.
 See Steven Hahn’s comment in Eric Foner, et al., “Eric Foner’s ‘Reconstruction’ at Twenty-Five,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14, no. 1 (January 2015): 13–27, 23.